“Flip-flopping” on major issues can be hazardous to your political health. “Flip-flopping” when you’ve branded yourself as a brave principled “maverick” can be especially dangerous. And “flip-flopping” on grounds that you were confused about the issue in question is really, really bad, particularly when you are on the far side of 70.
That’s why John McCain may have ended his long political career the other day when he responded to attacks by primary challenger J.D. Hayworth on his support for TARP (popularly known from the beginning as the “Wall Street Bailout”) by claiming he was misled by the Fed Chairman and the Treasury Secretary into thinking the bill was about the housing industry, not Wall Street:
In response to criticism from opponents seeking to defeat him in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, the four-term senator says he was misled by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. McCain said the pair assured him that the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program would focus on what was seen as the cause of the financial crisis, the housing meltdown.
“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” McCain said in a meeting Thursday with The Republic’s Editorial Board, recounting his decision-making during the critical initial days of the fiscal crisis. “They decided to stabilize the Wall Street institutions, bail out (insurance giant) AIG, bail out Chrysler, bail out General Motors. . . . What they figured was that if they stabilized Wall Street – I guess it was trickle-down economics – that therefore Main Street would be fine.”
What makes this claim especially astonishing is that McCain was rather famously focused on TARP at the time. He suspended his presidential campaign to come crashing back into Washington to attend final negotiations designed to get enough Republican support for TARP to get it passed. He was, by all accounts, a very passive participant in these talks, but it’s not as though he wasn’t there. And you’d think his memories of the event would be reasonably clear, since it probably sealed his electoral defeat.
It’s not obvious how McCain can walk this statement back. And in terms of the political damage he inflicted on himself, it’s hard to think of a suitable analogy without going all the way back to 1967, when Gov. George Romney (father of The Mittster) destroyed his front-running presidential campaign by claiming he had been “brainwashed” by military and diplomatic officials into erroneously supporting the Vietnam War. He never recovered from that one interview line. (Sen. Gene McCarthy, who did run for presidential in 1968, was asked about the Romney “brainwashing” by David Frost, and quipped: “I would have thought a light rinse would have been sufficient.”).
McCain has a more sizable bank of political capital than George Romney ever did, but in a primary contest where he was already in some trouble, the suggestion that he was brainwashed by a Republican administration into fundamentally misunderstanding the central national and global issue of the moment–not to mention the central current grievance of voters with Washington–could be fatal. It doesn’t help that it will vastly reinforce Hayworth’s not-so-subtle claims that McCain is a fine statesman whose time has come and gone, and is now losing it.